UK scientists have identified bioactive plant chemicals in the most practical of staple foods, the potato. These natural chemicals have been associated with reduced blood pressure and they selectively affect a chemotherapeutic target for trypanosomes and similar diseases such as sleeping sickness.
“Potatoes have been cultivated for thousands of years, and we thought traditional crops were pretty well understood”, says food scientist Dr Fred Mellon from the Institute of Food Research (IFR). “But this surprise finding shows that even the most familiar of foods might conceal a hoard of health-promoting chemicals”.
Kukoamines and related compounds were found at higher levels than some other compounds in potatoes that have a long history of scientific investigation. However, kukoamines are little studied, as they have only previously been found in an exotic plant whose bark is used to make an infusion in Chinese herbal medicine.
Dr Mellon and his team stumbled across the compounds while doing an analysis funded by the Food Standards Agency. “No-one had expected to find them in one of the staple food crops of the Western world”, he says.
Scientists used to have to know what they were looking for when analysing composition. They might look for 30 or so known compounds. With new “metabolomic” techniques, they can find the unexpected by analysing the 100s or even 1000s of small molecules produced by an organism. IFR has just taken delivery of a new instrument to be used for metabolomics studies in diet and health, and food safety research.
“Only a small proportion of plants have been subjected to serious phytochemical analysis”, said Dr Mellon. “Until now none of the new metabolites we found in this study had ever been identified from any of the species we examined, and only one had ever been described from another plant source. Modern profiling techniques should enable major breakthroughs to be made in understanding how genes interact with environment to determine the complex position of a plant or animal in life”.
The scientists have yet to determine the stability of compounds during cooking and to conduct detailed dose-response studies to determine their impact on health.
The findings were published yesterday in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry and are available online through the journal’s ASAP advance access: